On Fat Studies in tertiary education

While the government is set to release their new plan to “combat obesity”, the first Fat Studies class offered in New Zealand is drawing to a close. The course, Critical Understandings of Fatness and Health, is being offered as a 300 level distance learning course within the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Massey University, and contributes to the college’s larger focus on exploring citizenship in the 21st century.

It has been offered as a special topic in 2015 as the university gauges demand for further interest in the course. And it’s timely too, with the second New Zealand Fat Studies conference being planned for 2016, four years after an inaugural conference was held. Scholars and activists from three continents are expected to attend to discuss issues related to the scientific study as well as the lived experiences of fat individuals.

I agreed to offer the Fat Studies course after a group of Bachelor of Health Science students approached me last year. They came and expressed an interest in learning more about Fat Studies; they wanted to learn about anti-fat attitudes and how they impact on the health and well-being of fat people, and how anti-fat attitudes result in barriers to fat people receiving healthcare.

This class isn’t about promoting a certain body size, or glorifying a certain lifestyle or health habits. However, I would suggest that what currently happens in our culture is that only one kind of body and only one kind of lifestyle is acceptable.

Instead, this course explores how fat bodies are viewed in our culture. It also examines the resulting anti-fat attitudes and structural oppression experienced by fat individuals. Fat people face discrimination in most settings in our world, including education, employment, housing, relationships, and in accessing healthcare. Anti-fat attitudes also impact on the health and well-being of non-fat people as well, as evidenced by children who diet, teenagers who develop eating disorders, and adults who struggle to engage with their lives fully because of weight anxiety.  Doctors are also less likely to speak about diet and exercise with non-fat patients; perhaps making assumptions about the individual’s lifestyle and health behaviours based solely on their size.

As a discipline, Fat Studies is similar to Women’s Studies, Māori Studies, Queer Studies and Disability Studies. These disciplines arose in response to negative debate around these identities. Scholars began engaging in research that looked critically at what was known about each group and began to provide an alternative story.

It has been argued by some that such qualifications have no place in tertiary institutions. I strongly disagree. These courses are a critical use of public investment, playing an important role in academia by asking questions, highlighting inequities in knowledge and developing ethical research practices. They are critical to scientific, historical, political, and historical debate. They should be central to our understanding of what it means to be a New Zealand citizen in the 21st Century.

Similar courses have been offered at Macquarie University in Australia and Dickinson College at Oregon State University and Lake Forest College at Chicago State University in the United States. The primary textbook for the course is the Fat Studies Reader (New York University Press) which defines the discipline as, “an interdisciplinary field of scholarship marked by an aggressive, consistent, rigorous critique of the negative assumptions, stereotypes, and stigma placed on fat and the fat body”.

The structure of the class has been largely guided by the interests of the students. Topics include the biopolitics of fatness, the pathologisation of fat bodies, anti-fat attitudes in healthcare and an alternative to traditional weight-based health models. Students completing the course are identifying and discussing mainstream and alternative debate on fatness, analysing size as a social justice issue and critically appraising size oppression in society including health, media, employment and education.

It is my hope that this course will contribute to the growing recognition in New Zealand that fat-shaming and weight-based health models fail in their efforts to make us a country with lower human biomass while contributing to the oppression of fat people.

The Government should work to ensure that all citizens, regardless of size, are protected from oppression (as opposed to embarking on a programme to combat obesity). One way the Government could fulfil their commitment to fat citizens is by updating employment and discrimination laws to include physical size alongside race, gender, sexual orientation, ability, and religion. Maybe that’s part of the plan?

Cross posted from The Dominion Post